The coronavirus pandemic response has forced many changes in everyday life, many with negative results that are easily predictive. But there have been some unexpected changes, too, including the exasperation of litter and sanitation problems on Morro Bay’s waterfront.

Since last spring, when local restaurants went from being closed altogether, to being able to offer takeout, and eventually establishing outdoor eating spaces, an abundance of trash has been produced along the Embarcadero and Morro Rock area overflowing garbage cans. It’s an issue that has crept up on the City over several years.

City Manager Scott Collins’ March 23 staff report said, “Morro Bay has experienced a significant growth in the number of visitors over the past decade as measured by hotelier receipts and Transient Occupancy Tax [TOT] revenue. By way of example, since fiscal year 2008/09, TOT receipts have increased by a staggering 93% overall.”

That increase in tourism had been fueled greatly by stepped-up promotions coming from the Tourism Business Improvement District’s (TBID), efforts.
TBID charges an additional 3% on the cost of a room night at hotels, motels, B&Bs and vacation rentals, and since inception in 2009, has grown steadily and is now anticipated to be about $1 million a year. The money is collected by the lodging businesses and managed by the City with TBID’s advisory board.

But the City/TBID haven’t done any promotions since last April, when the pandemic shut down much of the economy and the Governor issued stay-at-home orders. Tourism dried up for several months, with the City even going so far as to take out ads in the Central Valley asking people not to visit the area.

But they came anyway last summer, in droves, as they escaped wildfires in the Sierras and the usual heat waves. At times, the beach was crowded with people and the Embarcadero choked with traffic — on weekdays.

Restaurants were allowed to operate their takeout and outdoor dining and in most reports, the summer was good for them. But it also exasperated the litter problem.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on indoor dining,” Collins said, “a significantly higher number of individuals order take-out food beginning last summer and continuing through this year. This put added pressure on the City’s trash system, particularly in the Embarcadero, Coleman Beach and Morro Rock parking lot areas.”

The City tried a PR campaign urging everyone to be a “Trash Hero” and not litter, but with seagulls, which raid full garbage cans scattering takeout food containers on the ground, the City had a growing problem.

So Collins asked TBID to agree to put some $10,000 towards the issue so they can hire temporary maintenance people over the summer. He then asked the Council.

Along the waterfront, “the City provides 63 public trash/recycling bins and 6 public restrooms (several lease sites on the waterfront also have public restrooms, and those are managed by tenants of those lease sites),” Collins said. “During the peak tourist season (late May to early October), several trash/recycling receptacles and the more heavily used restrooms were impacted as thousands of visitors were using the same area simultaneously.
“The physical manifestation of this impact includes, at times, overflowing trash cans near the water, intermittent service disruptions, and untidy conditions in the heavily used public restrooms (in particular, the Morro Rock parking lot).”

Public Works, which oversees the City’s 3-man maintenance crew, made some changes to address the issue, like shifting work schedules; added handicap port-a-potties; started cleaning restrooms four times a day from the previous two or three; added more dumpsters at key places; assigned the Harbor Department staff to also keep an eye on and help empty overflowing garbage cans; and, re-plumbed the Morro Rock restrooms to handle more flushing, among other things.

The Council, which has been getting an earful of complaints by residents about the trash problems agreed to bring more people on.
“Council,” Collins told Estero Bay News, “approved using some TBID and General Fund [monies] to add more part-time staffing hours to support trash pickup and restroom cleaning along the waterfront and beach areas.”

The Council appropriated up to $25,000 “for that needed enhancement,” he added, “with $10,000 coming from TBID and up to $15,000 from the General Fund. That is on top of enhancements made last year in the form of additional port-a-potties, wash stations, and trashcans and dumpsters.”
He’s not sure how many extra people will be hired, “but the new hire(s) will spend their time on the waterfront/beach areas Fridays through Sundays from April on through October.”

As for Coleman Park’s condemned restrooms, the City wants to use Proposition 68 monies to replace it. That restroom has been closed for about 2-years now and Coleman Park is one of the sites where the Harbor Department set up RV camping spaces, in a program to try and bolster the Harbor Fund.
“Portas will go up at Coleman,” Collins said, “along with a wash station. The Prop. 68 grant requires a local match.” His report to Council said the City needed to come up with “at least $40,000 in funds or in-kind services.”

The City is slated to get $177,000 from Prop. 68, the normal amount it would receive based on population. The City also has it’s own, “Park In-lieu” fees charged to subdivision projects in-lieu of providing park space, which can go towards this.

“I anticipate the full first phase of the project,” Collins said, “which includes modern fully ADA complaint restrooms, will cost around $300,000. We are looking at park in-lieu and other funds to cover the remainder, as well as in-kind service.”

Meanwhile, the City continues with its Be A Trash Hero campaign and residents can assist by notifying the City when they see overflowing cans (and maybe picking up some of the litter too).